Armstrong Pic "First Man" Is Subdued, Sensational

In 2018, when the makings of a hero – competence, dignity, and resolve – are in perilously short supply among American dignitaries, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s (“Whiplash” and “La La Land”) Neil Armstrong movie “First Man” booms with pertinence. Ironically it is a quiet, understated picture, deftly mirroring the unassuming nature of its subject. Armstrong, who died in 2012 at the age of 82, may have been the first person to walk on the moon, but in many ways was a conventional family man and professional; not exactly charismatic, not exactly feature film material.

Instead of covering over or puffing up his story, Chazelle and star Ryan Gosling (“Drive”) embrace it – to cumulatively spectacular effect.

The film begins in the air, rebuffing a traditional biopic approach straightaway. No retelling of Armstrong’s childhood or his days as an engineering student at Purdue University. We’re in 1961, eight years before NASA’s paradigm-shifting Apollo 11 mission, and Armstrong (Gosling) is piloting an experimental X-15 aircraft on behalf of the United States Air Force and the National Advisory Committee For Aeronautics.

As Neil pushes the X-15 to its limits to nearly fatal effect, the pic’s technical muscle is immediately front and center. The sequence is jarring in its severity, the director keeping us confined to the cockpit, jostling us right along with his lead. Already the Earth’s atmosphere can’t constrain Armstrong, the flight’s intensity cutting a sharp contrast with the domestic scenes that follow: Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy, “Unsane”) face unimaginable anguish as their 2-year-old daughter Karen slowly succumbs to a brain tumor.

By the thirty-minute mark Chazelle has staked his movie’s claim to polarity with Ron Howard’s 1995 rousing “Apollo 13.” There will be few glimpses of the outside world’s reaction to Apollo 11, only fleeting contextualization of the mission’s cultural significance as Armstrong rises through NASA’s ranks. Luck plays an important part, recklessness another. In a crucial mid-film scene, Neil practices with a makeshift lunar module in a wheat field, a violent wake-up call to just how loony the whole enterprise was.

Gosling’s measured turn is in perfect harmony with the film around him. Foy’s is equally believable and the supporting characters that orbit around Neil and Janet (Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas, Shea Whigham, Pablo Schreiber, and Ethan Embry play fellow astronauts) are cut from the same cloth: competitive working men with ambitions and families, some of whom go on to pay the ultimate price for their life’s work. But there’s little time for tears in the race to the moon. Apollo 11 looms.

Corey Stoll’s (“Ant-Man”) portrayal of Armstrong’s notorious crewmate, Buzz Aldrin, is essentially an extended cameo, but their chilly relationship further establishes the relative normalcy in being an astronaut. These are flesh and blood beings with the same quirks and partialities as anyone else, neither one concerned with making friends. Screenwriter Josh Singer imbues his story’s “sailors of the sky” with this same steeliness throughout. It’s also reflected in Justin Hurwitz’s score – all part of the immersion.

Said immersion owes the most to cinematographer Linus Sandgren, who’s made an incredible adjustment from the period piece artifice of “American Hustle” and “Battle Of The Sexes” to the grain and grit of Chazelle’s vision here. Shot mostly in close-up on 16mm and 35mm film, the movie looks nearly contemporaneous, in no small part due Chazelle and Sandgren’s choice of film stock and obsessive attention to detail. These choices eventually lead into the IMAX-shot moonwalk, where the image opens up to breathtaking effect, driving home the romantic sweep of space that only a few human beings have experienced outside of the silver screen. It has never been done better than here.

From any angle, Chazelle and Gosling’s creative partnership has yielded as intimate and introspective a real-life space movie imaginable, a visual tour de force that adds another layer to the latter’s fascinating inclination to playing real heroes – real human beings. The piece’s steadfast push-pull between macro and micro, between small steps and giant leaps, is too muted to elicit the kind of glowing takes that play on social media. But let it grow in mind and Chazelle’s virtuosic telling of the ne plus ultra of human discovery will leave its mark on you. Highly recommended.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: October 12, 2018
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Damien Chazelle
Screenwriters: Josh Singer
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Corey Stoll, Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Patrick Fugit, Ethan Embry, Lukas Haas, Shea Whigham, Pablo Schreiber, Ciaran Hinds
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language)